N.S. calls on Ottawa to define a 'moderate livelihood,' as fishing dispute boils over

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil is urging Ottawa to define what constitutes legal harvesting in a "moderate livelihood" fishery, after a dispute about Indigenous fishing treaty rights boiled over on the weekend.

In a statement Saturday on Twitter, McNeil said the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans needs to answer the question of what a moderate livelihood looks like before the province can examine its own rules for fish buyers.

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He said Nova Scotia’s regulations rely on the federal department's "authority and responsibility to manage the fishery and identify what are legal, licenced fisheries."

McNeil added that the province is working with Ottawa to find a facilitator to "bring the sides together."

"The way to resolve the issue is through respectful dialogue," he said.

His comments came after multiple acts of violence against Indigenous fishers in southwestern Nova Scotia.

A lobster pound in Middle West Pubnico, N.S., was burned to the ground early Saturday, destroying the lobster catch of Mi’kmaq fishers.

Earlier in the week, two clashes involving hundreds of people took place outside fish plants that store Indigenous-caught lobster.

The Mounties have made two arrests in relation to the incidents, with one man charged with assault against a local Indigenous chief and another man charged with arson for allegedly burning a vehicle.

A man considered a person of interest in the lobster pound fire remains in hospital with life threatening injuries.

The attacks were widely condemned, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying he is "appalled by the acts of violence, intimidation, and destruction taking place in Nova Scotia."

"The perpetrators will be held accountable," he said Saturday on Twitter, noting that Ottawa has approved the request to provide more policing support. "We’re focused on keeping people safe."

The escalating tensions also prompted a show of solidarity in Halifax on Sunday, where hundreds of people gathered at Grand Parade Square to show support for Mi’kmaq fishers.

In front of a large sign that read "Respect the treaties, protect the sacred," multiple speakers addressed the crowd and spoke out about the violence directed at Indigenous fishers. Protesters held placards carrying slogans such as "We are all treaty people."

In response to the recent violence, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair approved a request by Nova Scotia's Attorney General to step up the RCMP presence in the region.

Chief Mike Sack of the Sipekne'katik First Nation said he is grateful for the additional policing and law enforcement resources.

But he said some of the "damage, destruction, racist behaviour, harassment and intimidation" could have been avoided had repeated requests for a greater police presence been addressed more promptly.

Still, Sack said he appreciates the efforts of local RCMP and is pleased they'll get the back up needed during an "extremely overwhelming time for all of us."

The Supreme Court of Canada issued a landmark decision in 1999 that said the Mi'qmaq and Maliseet people of Atlantic Canada and the Gaspe region of Quebec have a right to earn a "moderate livelihood" from fishing.

The ruling upheld the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1752, which promised Indigenous Peoples the right to hunt and fish their lands and establish trade.

Many non-Indigenous critics, however, cite a clarification issued by the court, stating the treaty rights would be subject to federal regulations.

Commercial fishermen have also expressed concern with the conservation of fish and lobster stocks.

Yet others have argued that commercial fishing seasons are based on the economy and trade, and the scale of the small Indigenous fishery doesn't impact conservation.

The dispute has become so heated that the head of a Maritime Fishermen's Union local resigned, citing harassment and intimidation against himself and his family.

Joel Comeau stepped down hours before a planned meeting with Sack, saying he feared for his safety.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 18, 2020.

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